The Joyful Noise of Economic Justice

by Lindy Davies

Keynote Speech presented at the Georgist Education Conference
in Arden, Delaware, July, 12 1999

Hmmm... pretty packed schedule today, eh folks? We've seen many things happen in this miraculous 20th century that nobody ever thought could happen. People flew like birds, orbited the earth, broke the sound barrier, walked on the moon, spoke through airwaves across continents. Well, today we have achieved something else that has long been considered impossible: a room full of Georgists actually appear to to have gotten tired out, talking about the single tax!

I'd like you to consider this description of a group of social reformers:

It was an immensely powerful idea.... The [group] never had more than ten thousand members at any one time; people came and went, and perhaps a hundred thousand were members at one time or another. But their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers. They traveled everywhere (many were unemployed or migrant workers); they organized, wrote, sang, spread their message and their spirit.

They were attacked with all the weapons the system could put together: the newspapers, the courts, the police, the army, mob violence. Local authorities passed laws to stop [them] from speaking; [they] defied these laws.... They were arrested one after another until they clogged the jails and the courts, and finally forced the town to repeal its anti-speech ordinance...
            -- Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

That doesn't sound like us, does it? And yet, we wish it was about us! We wish that we had the fire and passion that characterized the "wobblies" -- the International Workers of the World -- whose heyday, after all, nearly coincided with that of the Single Taxers. And Georgists didn't always lack fire -- as we can see in the famous photo of the "Dover Jail Single Tax Club", that collection of "depraved and irresponsible vagabonds", those "pests of society" who tried to get the state of Delaware to adopt the Single Tax in 1897. Among them was Frank Stephens, Arden's founder -- a man none accused of being bland or unmemorable.

What's happened to us? There is a sort of malaise -- almost a sheepishness -- among today's Georgists. We have been trying so hard, for so long, with such meager resources and so little to show for it -- it's only natural that it would start to do a job on our heads. We start to believe the bad things people say about us -- and even blame our lack of success on -- gasp -- our own faults!

In a way, we share the experience of the New York City panhandler who, having been stolidly ignored for days on end, by thousands of people, begins to wonder whether he is actually visible at all! I am serious about this. One thing I found out about panhandlers in New York is that they often value human contact far more than money. I tend to give the fifty cents -- for whatever that's worth -- and I have often had the experience of walking by someone and finding that I have, say, nothing but a ten dollar bill in my pocket. Now, my hand is in my pocket -- I am forced to look the person in the eye and say, "I'm sorry, all I have is a ten, and I can't afford to give you that." And the person is moved. He'll say, "Thanks!" He might not have thank you for a perfunctory fifty cents, but if you speak to him as a human being, he will.

You have undoubtedly noticed that the single tax is not yet in effect. And since you are among the most prominent exponents of this reform, that is obviously your fault, isn't it?

But: one of my favorite pieces of advice from my favorite philosopher, Lao Tzu, is to "turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength." It may sound paradoxical, but in fact it is the eminently practical basis for Tai Chi Ch'uan, Chinese medicine, and peace of mind, generally. So: let's examine some of the explanations that are offered for the Georgists' lack of success. And as we do, let's consider Lao Tzu's wise advice.

They say that the Georgist movement

We're quaint and out-of-date. When you consider the level of confidence inspired by neoclassical economic theory, this becomes a stone thrown from a glass house. But, the major document of our economic theory is one hundred and twenty years old, and that may make us -- shall we say -- unfashionable. An example: Henry George takes great pains in Progress and Poverty to exhaustively refute the wages-fund theory. He proves that poverty cannot be blamed on any lack of capital -- in essence, that labor produces its own wages. Now how quaint, how archaic that seems to folks today! Labor produces its own wages! Right. We work hard, as we must, to make ends meet -- but any connection between the labor we perform and the reward we get is seen as utterly coincidental! Today's pre-eminent economic model is that of the casino. Recent immigrants still correlate hard work with success. But in the minds of most Americans, success is a matter of luck, of being in the right place at the right time. To quote the Maryland lottery, "You gotta play to win." Despite the pathetic remoteness of their chances, people don't want out of the game. It simply isn't fashionable to suggest, as we do, that another set of rules will allow everyone to win.

We lack training and sophistication. Well now, there we are hoist on the petard of our own methodology. And happily so! For one of the basic tenets of Georgist economics, sometimes downplayed, but almost as important as the land question itself, is the assertion that any thinking person can understand fundamental economics. Expensive, esoteric training and arcane methods are not necessary. The means to make informed decisions about economic policy are not the exclusive domain of credentialed experts! Now, do you cherish for one moment the notion that this is anything less than subversive? We may lack training in econometric gimcrackery -- but if we, as Georgists, lack sophistication, we have nothing to blame but our own laziness of thought. There are those in our ranks -- some of whom are presenting at this conference -- who have attained high sophistication in economic thought, armed with nothing more than the basic economic definitions set out by George, and a passionate stubborn will to figure things out.

We are a cult. Of course, that may not be all bad! But, we lack the advantage of genuine cults in being able to sleep- deprive and brainwash our converts; we have to actually convince them. Are we a small band of zealots passionately devoted to the adjustment of local property tax rates? No, we are a small band of zealots passionately devoted to the fundamental realignment of public and private economic rights in order to create a just and prosperous society. There's a difference. And anyway, the cure for being a small band of zealots is to recruit a lot more zealots. Christianity used to be a cult, too.

We "go it alone", disdaining effective marketing techniques. Well, to the extent that we actually do this, of course, it is a Bad Thing. But we don't do it as much as hawkers of high-priced marketing services would have us think. A property tax reform that means lower taxes for most voters -- that is easy to market. But a re-thinking of the moral basis of ownership -- a questioning of our basic right to own land? It's a rough one. It takes time. We're told that we should align ourselves with like-minded reform movements -- but which ones should we pick? And should their agendas get precedence over ours? Other movments have easy things to rally behind: Save the whales! Save the redwoods! Preserve the family farm! Make food safe! Eat the rich! But: name a reform that can improve the moral, intellectual, physical quality of life, in any community. Can you think of one, of a single one, that doesn't depend, finally, for its success on the solving of the land question?

No, the fact is that our failures cannot be blamed on the failings of -- us -- the people who have been trying to advance the Georgist cause. Other successful movements have had worse nocount losers than we. Our failures are a direct and predictable result of the difficulty of our task.

You see, we don't have time for carping, for hemming and hawing, for wheel-spinning and finger-pointing. Our task is very difficult, yes -- but one fact heartens me:


And that's where the joyful part comes in. Because if I didn't know of a solution -- however difficult -- to the terrifying complex of my world's problems, I couldn't face the newspapers. I would be just as avid as anyone to get my head in the sand, to be anesthetized. But I don't need to run from the problems, because I know that there is a real solution, and that, my friends, is the joyful noise of economic justice!

So, you know what? I'm tired of hearing people say: "what's wrong with the Georgist movement is blah blah blah..." Hey: if you care enough about this movement to make statements about what's wrong with it, then you're part of it. If you don't like what someone else is doing, then do something yourself.

Here's what I think we should do:

1) We must be positive. We need not apologize for thinking big. Two-rate is great, but get one thing straight: we stand for something. What is it, exactly, that we stand for? What's the kernel of the Georgist message? Here is my entry into the brief-statement sweepstakes:

Land -- natural opportunity -- is common property. Not should be -- IS. Society ignores that fact at its peril. The wealth that people create with their own labor is their own rightful property. Not should be -- IS. To take it from them is robbery. People cannot live without land. If we are compelled to pay a private landholder for access to the natural opportunities, then we are actually being forced to pay someone for our right to live! Our goal is to RAISE WAGES by creating a just and prosperous society.

Sure, maybe every now and then, to a specific audience, we may cop to a toned-down version of the Whole Enchilada. But let's keep our eyes resolutely fixed on the prize!

2) We must be sensible. We don't have a lot of people and we don't have a lot of time. Our tasks are huge. We can't afford to waste time on desperate measures. Should we spend tens of millions of dollars to buy ourselves 15 minutes of fame? I'm arfaid that if we did, those 15 minutes would be our reward. We need to look carefully, soberly, at what we can do to make a difference, and do that -- with professionalism, courage and zeal! But know that we won't get quick results. Another taoist proverb comes to mind, taught to impatient Tai Chi students: "Daily progress, by the thickness of a sheet of paper."

We will outlast the conventional wisdom, and our work will have more impact than the Lincoln Institute. Will Lincoln ever publish anything that has the impact of Progress and Poverty? Nah. I don't discount the importance of financial resources. But I believe that the Lincoln Foundation does not have enough money, ultimately, to silence the Georgist movement - - nor does it have anywhere near enough money (were we to get it) to ensure our victory. We have no choice but to take a long- range view.

Funny thing: we've heard the motto, "think globally, act locally" so many times, it's become a cliche. But don't take anything for granted. For my work, lately, I've begun to adopt that motto in reverse. Think locally -- because we must understand that land is where we live, and our relationship with it must be understood in its proper intimacy. And act globally: the world is a big place, history is a long time, and each of us has a vital role in this overall, long-range, global strategy to win through to the promised land.

Finally, I want to give a sort of eulogy to one of our colleagues. I didn't know him very well, so someone else might do a better job, but as far as I know, to date no one has. Many of you will remember a Georgist named Ray Abrams. He attended conferences for many years, often touting his self-published book, Total Tax Relief. It was actually a pretty goofy book. But I tell you: there are a few people out there, who have seen the cat, who have joined this most fundamental social movement, because of Ray Abrams and his goofy book. So Ray: thanks.